Changes proposed for CPA exam would enhance higher-order skills testing

By Ken Tysiac

The AICPA has proposed changes to the Uniform CPA Examination that are designed to enhance testing of higher-order skills that newly licensed CPAs need to possess in the wake of changes in the profession that have altered job responsibilities.

The proposed changes to the exam have been crafted to reflect the profession’s evolution and keep the exam in step with the profession. In an exposure draft issued Tuesday, Maintaining the Relevance of the Uniform CPA Examination, the AICPA seeks comment on proposed changes, which would take effect during 2017. The ED is available on the AICPA website. Comments are due Nov. 30, and final decisions on the exam’s content and format are expected to be announced in the spring of 2016.

Under the proposal, the exam would retain its four existing sections—Auditing and Attestation (AUD), Business Environment and Concepts (BEC), Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR), and Regulation (REG). But many other changes would be associated with the exam, including:

  • Enhanced testing of higher-order cognitive skills that include critical thinking, problem-solving, analytical ability, and professional skepticism.
  • A blueprint for each section of the exam illustrating the knowledge and skills that will be tested, which are linked directly to tasks that are representative of the work of a newly licensed CPA. The blueprints would replace the current Content Specification Outline and Skill Specification Outline and would contain more information for candidates, academics, regulators, and others.
  • A plan for more task-based simulations for the exam. These would test a combination of content knowledge and higher-order skills. Task-based simulations would be added to the BEC section for the first time. There would be eight or nine task-based simulations each in the AUD, FAR, and REG sections, and four or five of these simulations in the BEC section.
  • An increase in total testing time from 14 to 16 hours. Each section would be allotted four hours. This represents an hour added to the BEC section to accommodate the addition of task-based simulations, and an hour added to the REG section, partly because of an increase in task-based simulations. The cost of the exam is expected to increase as a result of the time expansion.
  • It is anticipated that the scoring weight of multiple-choice questions and task-based simulations will be about 50% each in the AUD, FAR, and REG sections. The BEC section is likely to have an approximate score weighting of 50% multiple choice, 15% written communication, and 35% task-based simulation. Currently, multiple-choice questions are weighted 60% and task-based simulations 40% in the scoring of the AUD, FAR, and REG sections. The BEC section’s current scoring weight is 85% multiple choice and 15% written communication.

Along with regular exam content reviews, the AICPA periodically conducts a comprehensive practice analysis to ensure that the exam continues to assess the technical knowledge and skills necessary for initial licensure to protect the public interest. At a minimum, a practice analysis must be completed every seven years.

Previous practice analyses were undertaken in 2001 and 2008 and resulted in updated versions of the exam that launched in 2004 and 2011. The current proposed updates are the result of a practice analysis launched early last year.

During the analysis, input was collected from boards of accountancy, accounting firms, academics, standard setters, regulators, business and industry, and others who share an interest in preserving the strength and mission of the profession.

The research showed that the profession supports changes to the exam to enhance testing of higher-order skills and ensure it remains aligned with the types of tasks newly licensed CPAs perform regularly.

“We agree that newly licensed CPAs are being asked to perform tasks and analyze data at more sophisticated levels than ever before,” one state board of accountancy regulator said in response to an AICPA invitation to comment. “As such, it is imperative that the Examination constantly evolve and test at appropriate levels.”

The proposed changes are designed to give the exam an even greater focus on the skill levels today’s profession demands for newly licensed CPAs. Generally, the current exam equally assesses remembering and understanding skills and application-level skills.

Under the proposed update, higher-level analysis skills would be tested in portions comprising approximately:

  • 15% to 25% of the AUD section.
  • 20% to 30% of the BEC section.
  • 25% to 35% of the FAR section.
  • 25% to 35% of the REG section.

The AUD section of the exam will test skills of the highest level, evaluation. This will comprise approximately 5% to 15% of skills tested in the AUD section.

Comments can be emailed to

Ken Tysiac ( is a JofA editorial director.


Plans for the exam

The following chart compares the content in the current Uniform CPA Examination with the content proposed for the CPA exam of the future:

 Source: AICPA exposure draft, Maintaining the Relevance of the Uniform CPA Examination.
Source: AICPA exposure draft, Maintaining the Relevance of the Uniform CPA Examination.

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